Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(14)

by Seanan McGuire

Sumi was the cause of the screaming: that much was clear. She was slumped limply against the base of the wall, eyes closed. She wasn’t breathing, and her hands—her clever, never-still hands—were gone, severed at the wrists. She would never tie another knot or weave another cat’s cradle out of yarn. Someone had stolen that from her. Someone had stolen everything from her.

“Oh,” whispered Nancy, and the sound was like a stone dropped into a still pool: small, but creating ripples that touched everything in their path. One of the girls whirled and ran, shouting for Miss Eleanor. Another began to sob, pressing her back to the wall and sinking down to the floor until she looked like a cruel parody of Sumi. Nancy thought about telling her to get up and decided against it. What did she know of grief in the face of death? All the dead people she’d ever met had been perfectly pleasant and not overly inconvenienced by the fact that they no longer had material bodies. Maybe Sumi would find her way to the Underworld and be able to tell the Lord of the Dead that Nancy was still trying to be sure, so that she could come back. He would be pleased, Nancy was sure, to hear that she was trying.

Belatedly, Nancy realized that it might look suspicious, her roommate dying when she had just arrived from the Underworld—maybe they would assume she preferred the dead to the living, or that Eleanor’s comments about them killing each other had been warnings—but since she hadn’t touched Sumi, she decided not to worry about it. There were better things to worry about, like Eleanor, now hurrying along the hall, flanked by the girl who’d run to fetch her on one side and by Lundy on the other. Lundy was wearing a grandmotherly flannel nightgown, with curlers in her hair. It should have looked ridiculous. Somehow, it just looked sad.

The girls parted to let Eleanor through. She stopped a few feet from Sumi, pressing one hand over her mouth, her eyes filling with tears. “Oh, my poor girl,” she murmured, kneeling to press her fingers to the side of Sumi’s neck. It was just a formality: she had clearly been dead for quite some time. “Who did this to you? Who could have done this to you?”

Nancy was somehow unsurprised when several of the girls turned to look at her. She was new; she had been touched by the dead. She didn’t protest her innocence. She just held up her hands, showing them the pale, unblemished skin. There was no way she could have washed the blood away so completely in one of their shared bathrooms, not without being seen. Even in the middle of the night, the amount of scrubbing required to get the blood from under her fingernails would have attracted attention, and she would have been undone.

“Leave poor Nancy alone; she didn’t do this,” said Eleanor. She wiped her eyes before offering her arm to Lundy, who helped her up. “No daughter of the Underworld would kill someone who hadn’t earned their place in those hallowed halls, isn’t that right, Nancy? She might be a murderess someday, but not on the basis of two days’ acquaintance.” Her tone was leaden with sorrow but perfectly matter-of-fact at the same time, as if the idea that Nancy might someday start mowing her friends down like wheat was of no real concern.

In the here and now, Nancy supposed that it wasn’t. She watched dully as Lundy produced a sheet from somewhere—linen closets, there had to be linen closets in a house this large—and covered Sumi’s body. The blood from Sumi’s stumps soaked through the fabric almost instantly, but it was still a little bit better than looking at the motionless girl with the ribbons in her hair.

“What happened?”

Nancy glanced to the side. Jack had appeared next to her, the collar of her shirt open and her bow tie hanging untied on the left. She looked unfinished. “If you don’t know what happened, why are you here?” It occurred to Nancy that she didn’t know where Jack’s room was, and she amended, “Unless this is your hall.”

“No, Jill and I sleep in the basement. It’s more comfortable for us, all things considered.” She adjusted her glasses, squinting at the red blotches on the sheet. “That’s blood. Who’s under the sheet?”

The girl with the brown braids from the Rhyme and Linearity world turned to glare at Jack. There was pure hatred in her gaze, enough that Nancy took an involuntary step backward. “Like you don’t know, you murderer,” she spat. “You did this, didn’t you? This is just like what happened to Angela’s guinea pig. You can’t keep your hands or your scalpels to yourself.”

“I told you, it was a cultural mix-up,” said Jack. “The guinea pig was in a common area, and I thought it was supposed to be for anyone who wanted it.”

“It was a pet,” snapped the girl.

Jack shrugged helplessly. “I offered to put it back together. Angela declined.”

“New girl.” The voice was Kade’s. Nancy looked over to see him nodding toward her room. “Why don’t you take that Addams and show her your room? I’ll try to intercept the other one before she can show up and start trouble.”

“Anything to avoid another angry mob with torches,” said Jack, seizing Nancy’s hand. “Show me your room.”

It sounded like a command rather than a request. Nancy didn’t argue. Under the circumstances, getting Jack out of sight and hence hopefully out of mind seemed much more important than forcing the other girl to ask nicely. She turned and hauled Jack to her door, still ajar after her hurried exit, and then inside.

Jack let go of Nancy’s hand as soon as they were inside, producing a handkerchief from her pocket and wiping her fingers. Her cheeks reddened when she saw Nancy’s startled look. “Difficult as it may be to believe, none of us escaped our travels unscathed, not even me,” she said. “I am perhaps a bit too aware of the natural world and its many wonders. A lot of those wonders would like nothing more than to melt the skin off your body. All those people in their creepy labs hooking dead bodies up to funky wires? There’s a reason they usually wear gloves.”

“I don’t really understand what the world you traveled to was like,” said Nancy. “Sumi’s world was all about candy and not making any sense at all, and Kade went to a war or something, but the world you describe and the world Jill describes barely seem to match up.”

“That’s because the worlds we experienced barely seemed to match up, despite being the same place,” said Jack. “Our parents were … let’s go with ‘overbearing.’ The sort who always wanted to put things in boxes. I think they hated us being identical twins more than we did.”